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Science & Space

Panel pushes NASA for Hubble rescue mission

By Robert Roy Britt and Leonard David
SPACE.comexternal link

A picture taken minutes before space shuttle Discovery's astronauts prepared to grab the Hubble Space Telescope with its remote arm.
A picture taken in 1999 minutes before space shuttle Discovery's astronauts prepared to grab the Hubble Space Telescope with a remote arm.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
Space Exploration
Sean O'Keefe
Hubble Space Telescope

( -- A committee of experts told NASA today that it should not give up on the idea of a space shuttle mission to service and improve the Hubble Space Telescope.

Under the National Academy of Sciences' National Research Council, a blue-ribbon group has been looking into the future of the orbiting telescope based on a request by NASA.

The committee is led by Louis Lanzerotti, a space scientist and consultant. The committee is reviewing various options for servicing Hubble with a crew of astronauts or with a robotic mission. obtained a copy of the study group's interim report earlier today. The document was officially released in late afternoon.

NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said in January that the planned servicing mission would be cancelled due to findings of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, or CAIB. The CAIB had rooted out both bureaucratic and technical issues that led to the tragic loss of Columbia and its crew early last year.

Under pressure from politicians and astronomers, O'Keefe agreed to have the Hubble servicing decision reviewed and has since said he might consider a robotic mission.

Today's release of the study panel's interim report issued by the National Academies cautions that the technology and expertise needed for a robotic mission are both in infant stages. Yet four previous manned servicing missions to Hubble were "highly successful," the group points out. It finds that there are no safety procedures required by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board that would absolutely prevent a shuttle mission to the orbiting telescope.

The 20-member group recommends further study before anything is ruled out.

"NASA should take no actions that would preclude a space shuttle servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope," the report concludes.

Open and candid

The report was made by the Committee on the Assessment of Options for Extending the Life of the Hubble Space Telescope. It includes retired NASA and Air Force personnel, as well as astronomers, robot specialists, and space industry experts.

In a telephone briefing with reporters today, Lanzerotti said NASA's O'Keefe has been "open and candid" with the committee. "We think that he will find our findings and recommendations of value to the agency."

Pressed by reporters about any fissure between the interim report's views and O'Keefe's repeated statements that flying humans to the Hubble is now deemed too risky, Lanzerotti stated: "I do not think that the committee necessarily sees a gap between our report and the administrator."

"The uncertain current status of the shuttle return to flight as well as uncertainties in the early stages of development of the robotic mission lead us to believe that the key technical decision points are at least a year in the future," Lanzerotti said. "Keeping both options open would be a prudent direction for the agency to take," he added.

"We are not saying sit on ones hands for the next year at all. We're saying precede vigorously with the development activities for a robotic mission. But at the same time do not preclude a space shuttle servicing to the Hubble," Lanzerotti told reporters in a teleconference.

Robot experiments

In order to beef up NASA's thinking about the practicality of Hubble robotic servicing, Lanzerotti said the space agency "should perhaps have a more active partnership role" in two space experiments now on the books.

Those tests are the XSS-11, sponsored by U.S. Air Force. The other experiment -- Orbital Express/DART -- is led by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Lanzerotti said those in-space demonstrations could be made more directly relatable to Hubble servicing.

The interim report states "there has been little time for NASA to evaluate and understand the technical and schedule limitations of robotic servicing."

Battery situation

Lanzerotti said the committee was unanimous in backing the interim report findings, but noted: "We will be continuing with that fact-finding as the committee goes forward."

The committee expects to issue its final recommendations by fall. The interim report was prepared because the committee members felt it necessary to respond to an urgency expressed by O'Keefe and other NASA officials.

If a robotic mission is to be undertaken, experts have said, planning must start soon. Hubble's batteries and pointing gyroscopes must be replaced, or the observatory will likely become inoperable by 2008, possibly sooner.

"You never know about batteries," Lanzerotti stated. The expected life of Hubble's batteries range from 13 years to 17 years, he said, "and we're getting to that point."

"One has to handle the battery situation such that, eventually, Hubble does not go into a mode where it becomes totally unusable and cannot even be rescued for deorbit at the end of its mission," Lanzerotti explained.

Increase Hubble's efficiency

The previously planned servicing mission by a shuttle crew would also have installed two new instruments on Hubble. Both are built and ready for use. The Wide Field Camera-3 (WFC3) would increase Hubble's efficiency for ultraviolet and near-infrared imaging by factors of 10 to 30, the committee reports. A Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS) would increase Hubble's speed for some ultraviolet observations by at least 10 to 30 times.

Other astronomers have said the new instruments, along with fresh batteries and gyroscopes, would insure Hubble would remain one of the world's most vital telescope for years to come. No replacement observatories for many of Hubble's important skills are planned for anytime prior to 2012.

"The committee urges that NASA commit to a servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope that accomplishes the objectives of the originally planned SM-4 mission," including both repairs and the addition of the new instruments, the report states, adding that the "riveting" returns of science from Hubble "are far from their natural end."

Good news for astronomers

The non-binding recommendations are good news for astronomers.

"I'm delighted that such an array of experts in all aspects of science and engineering agree that the Hubble Space Telescope should be maintained for the future," said Steven Beckwith, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, which operates Hubble for NASA.

"They have identified two viable ways for NASA to service Hubble, and it's my hope that NASA will find some way to keep the telescope at the scientific forefront for years to come," Beckwith said in a telephone interview.

Catherine Pilachowski, past president of the American Astronomical Society, is encouraged by the report, especially the urging that both new instruments be installed. Industry analysts have said the installations might be particularly challenging in a robotic effort.

Pilachowski said that the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph is "desperately important" to the astronomy community. It would help researchers map out the makeup of the universe in corners hitherto unseen.

She is less concerned whether robots or people do the installation. "I want to see it happen, one way or the other," she said. "I think that's true for astronomers in general."

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